Introduction to word stress and weakening

Once we have covered the repertoire of English phonemes, we need to go one step beyond and address one of the most difficult areas for Spanish speakers. I called this section Word stress and weakening  because it deals with several elements which are closely related and, as a whole, make English a completely different type of language from Spanish. Being able to produce the English sounds correctly is crucial, but if you don’t get the hang of English rhythm (which is heavily reliant on the phenomenon called weakening or reduction  and the allocation of word stress), your speech will always sound stilted, robotic and… Spanish.

But first let’s say something about stress. The stressed syllable is the one which carries the rhythmic beat in the word (it’s what we call el acento de una palabra in Spanish). This syllable tends to be louder and sometimes it also has a difference in pitch (it can be produced with a higher or lower note). When we talk about word stress we are referring to the stress pattern of only one word.

For instance, in the word interesting /ˈɪntrəstɪŋwe have one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed ones (in rhythmical terms, we would say PA-pa-pa). This is shown in dictionaries by a stress mark, similar to an apostrophe, which is placed high before the stressed syllable /ˈɪntrəstɪŋ/. So, always remember that the stressed syllable is the one which follows the apostrophe (some people tend to get confused with this).

On the other hand, the term sentence stress deals with the stress pattern of a whole clause or sentence (the intonation unit, in phonological terms) and focuses on the most important stress within that unit. It’s a very important subject, which I explain in painstaking detail in another section of this website (it was my final dissertation at university).

More than one stress. English words can have just one stress, like interesting, or two stresses, like expectation /ˌekspekˈtʃən/. In this case, there is a primary stress, marked by a high apostrophe, and a secondary stress, marked by a low apostrophe. An interesting rule to remember is that when the primary stress is located on the third or later syllable of a word, there must also be a secondary stress in the first two syllables (taken from Wells’ Pronunciation Dictionary). 

For example, in the words inconsistency  /ˌɪnkənˈsɪstənsi/ and pronunciation   /prəˌnʌnsiˈʃən/, we have the primary (or main) stresses, /ɪ/ and //, on the third and fourth syllables, respectively, and the secondary stresses, /ɪ/ and /ʌ/, on the first and second syllables. Of course, the secondary stress is not nearly as noticeable as the primary stress, which is the really important one.

Lexical words and function words. A key disctintion must be made between two types of words.

  1. Lexical or content words: nouns, adjectives, adverbs and main verbs. These are words which have strong content and are normally stressed in the sentence or clause (although in some situations they may be deaccented).
  2. Function or grammar words: prononuns, articles, prepositions, conjunctions, modal verbs, auxiliaries verbs (have and do) and the copula verb be. They have very little content and are best described in terms of their syntactic function. A great majority of them are monosyllabic and have no word stress. Normally, they aren’t stressed in the sentence or clause either.

A very useful tip. I always tell my students that the first thing you have to know about a word is where the stress or stresses are placed. This is because the stress has a big influence on how the vowel sounds. Stressed syllables always have a strong vowel, whereas unstressed syllables tend to be weakened. Weak vowels are absolutely essential if you want to speak good English, so I’ll continue by having a look at them in my next article.

This is the type of work I do with my students in my one-to-one classes. I make them practise these processes with exercises until they improve their comprehension of native speakers and are capable of speaking like that themselves. If you are interested in my classes, you can contact me here.


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